Saturday, March 31, 2012

Making Our Home a Home Sweet Home: Part 3 - Fixtures and Equipment

Around the time of the window replacement, our gas pack (a combination air conditioner and gas furnace) needed to be replaced.  At that time, the contractor mentioned we didn’t need to bother replacing the ductwork, as it was R-4.2.  I didn’t look into what that meant (as far as ENERGY STAR or other recommended performance programs) and just took his word for it.  Later, after looking in my scary crawl space (see Part 2), I understand why he did not want to replace them or at least seal them.  While he installed a new digital thermostat, it was not programmable.  I also did not know to inquire about SEER and AFUE ratings (air conditioning and furnace efficiency ratings, respectively), so he just replaced it with whatever was on sale at the time.

A while back Duke was giving away low-flow fixtures to its employees (my wife Beth qualifies here), so we picked up a 2.2 gallon-per-minute showerhead.  But, it still takes a good 20-30 seconds for hot water to reach its destination at any of our three fixtures.  We have replaced all our incandescent bulbs with CFLs, but still have one halogen lamp.  Reasonable LED torch style floor lamps are not readily available yet.

These are not uncommon circumstances.  Ideally, of course, we’d address all these issues in one fell swoop.  All the walls, roof and crawl space need (some, or better) insulation and air sealing, which would impact the load and therefore size of the HVAC equipment.  We could use a more efficient water heating system, or at least a recirculating pump to minimize water use.  We should replace all our appliances with ENERGY STAR rated ones.

I’m guessing our financial reality is like a lot of other folks.  A lot of other responsibilities and commitments, with school debt, three kids, travel plans, the list goes on.  But, we got to the point where how we feel at home became a real priority.  The following posts will describe the pathway we took, and the thinking, and building science, behind it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Making Our Home a Home Sweet Home: Part 2 – The State of the House

We moved into to our Durham bungalow in 2002. It is of 1940 vintage with a brick façade on the 24’ by 36’ original footprint.  A 12’ x 22’ wood sided addition was added 10-15 years later off the back of the house, and vinyl siding covered the same years later.  The home was drafty, inconsistent, and generally uncomfortable, in regard to temperature. When we first moved in the windows were hernia-inducing. By 2006, well before I was trained in existing home performance, we replaced them simply for the ability to open them and get fresh air and not necessarily for the energy improvement (which the new ones certainly provided). So new windows were in place when we started looking into our recent comfort improvements.  (I’ll pause here to say that I have learned that replacing your windows may not be the best first step to improving energy efficiency or comfort in your home. The following discoveries in our home seem to confirm the same.) We have storage in the attic, but it’s a shallow space with hardly room to stand between the collar ties and rafters.  Fetching stored kids clothes out of the attic was a trip to the sauna in summertime. The leaky access door provided a ready avenue of airflow. An interesting excuse for insulation had settled between the ceiling joists: some sort of black, sooty rock wool. The soffits lacked any venting. Two gable vents and a passive turbine vent were present.  The hardwood floors above our crawlspace gave us frozen toes in winter. The crawlspace itself was a horrible dungeon; a cobwebby critter hotel full of allergen-rich air rising into the house through the floorboards.  When we put a French door off the back room to the patio this fall (not an energy decision), we discovered the lack of quality and quantity of insulation in the addition.  As it turns out, there was no insulation in the walls and only a six-inch layer of critter covered fiberglass batt insulation laid on the drop ceiling above. It was actually a welcome discovery, because we now knew why that space was so generally uncomfortable. This also helps to confirm the likelihood and unfortunate reality that there is no insulation in the plaster-finished walls of the original (brick) portion of the house.
Pictured Above: The crawlspace. Typical by local standards including moisture, mold, cobwebs, and critters.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Making Our Home a Home Sweet Home: Part 1 - Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home. It’s pretty easy to read that phrase as cliché, passé, or as a slogan some potato chip maker might use to associate the taste of their potato chips with warm fuzzy feelings. I used to think all these things, until very recently, when my wife, Beth, and I decided to do some work at our house to improve comfort, health and performance. It’s actually been sort of transformational for me, making physical investments in this house. I’m buying into it, literally and figuratively.  Into the house, and the place, the neighborhood, the town, for our marriage, our family, our home. It feels good.

See, we’re traveling people. We both were born on other sides of the planet, and made our way to a common hometown on Virginia. Our nearly ten years here in Durham is practically the longest either one of us has spent in one place, let alone one house.  It has been a long process settling in here, but each year it feels more and more like home, especially with three little girls under the roof (when they’re not raising the roof!).

We’ve done some painting, made some minor interior changes over the years, but I didn’t really start to feel ownership in the place until we started making some significant comfort improvements. Sure, I have dreams (big ones) about designing and building a home for us someday. Who doesn’t? And, for crying out loud, I work at a design-build company, so the waiting strikes me each day as I view the delightful design work gracing the monitors around the office! Alas, it is not time, but we have warmed to our little Durham bungalow, and even a bit more, literally, with the recent work we have done. Bloom where you’re planted - Puttin’ down roots - Love the home you’re with. Choose your phrase, that’s what we’re doing!

What have I done, already, you ask? Great question. I’m a Home Performance Specialist after all.  So, I put my work into practice on my own home. Over the next week or so, I’ll walk you through the former state of our home, the approach I have for generating decision making, and the decisions we made for our home and our comfort. Stay tuned!
           Pictured Above: Bradley, Beth, and the girls at home.